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The Great Debate Over the Origin of the Ice Cream Sundae

Drizzling chocolate sauce over ice cream and topping it with a cherry seems like such a simple, intuitive decision that it’s no wonder multiple places claim to be the first to do it. But who made the first true ice cream sundae, and who came up with that unique name? Those are questions that food aficionados have been wrestling with for more than a century.

Several cities claim to be the birthplace of the ice cream sundae, among them New Orleans, New York, Buffalo, and Cleveland. But the strongest claims fall to three much smaller locales—including two that have been at each other’s throats for years over the matter.

The earliest claim belongs to Two Rivers, Wisconsin, located 40 miles southeast of Green Bay, on the shores of Lake Michigan. On a summer Sunday in 1881, soda fountain owner Ed Berners, at the request of a vacationing customer, reportedly poured chocolate syrup over a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Berners said in later interviews that he didn’t think the concoction would taste good—which is understandable, since soda was the common accompaniment to ice cream at the time. Luckily for Berners, he was dead wrong.

After savoring the chocolate-laden concoction, he began serving it every Sunday thereafter for a nickel. He also mixed in other ingredients, like bananas, nuts, raspberry sauce, and puffed rice, cooking up creations with colorful names like the Jennie Flip and the Flora Dora. Because of the significance of the last day of the week, Berners called his chocolate and ice cream treat a “Sunday,” later changing the name to “sundae” at the suggestion of a customer.

Residents of Two Rivers, who today number around 2000, are fiercely proud of their contribution to America’s dessert menus. The town’s visitors center houses a working replica of Berners’s soda fountain, where you can stop in for your own Two Rivers sundae. There’s also a plaque and various references throughout the town naming it the “official” birthplace of the ice cream sundae.

A certain crunchy college town in upstate New York, though, begs to differ with that designation. Officials in Ithaca, New York claim that on Sunday, April 3, 1892, the Reverend John Scott of the local Unitarian Church dropped by the Platt & Colt Pharmacy after services to enjoy a bowl of ice cream with the shop’s owner, Chester Platt. Instead of the usual unadorned scoops of vanilla, Platt decided to add cherry syrup and a candied cherry to each serving of ice cream. Platt named his creation the “Cherry Sunday” in honor of the day and his most holy company. Realizing he had a hit on his hands, he advertised the dish in the local newspaper, and soon after introduced a chocolate and a strawberry Sunday. He eventually changed the name of his dish to “sundae” to avoid offending the good reverend and the church.

Folks in Ithaca believe their story trumps Two Rivers’ for one big reason: evidence. Several years ago, a pair of intrepid local high schoolers rooted around in the town archives and came up with a solid paper trail. This includes the 1892 newspaper advertisement (believed to have been placed the day after Platt first served his Cherry Sunday), a newspaper article about Platt’s Sundays, a letter from the shop’s clerk, and a store ledger proving Platt had all the ingredients necessary.

Game, set, match for Ithaca—right?

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Well, not quite. Two Rivers stands by its story, despite Ithaca’s seemingly foolproof case. Their argument: Just because they lack hard evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. With both sides firmly dug in, a civic (albeit good-humored) spat has developed between the towns. Each has bought an ad in the other’s newspaper stating its case. Officials have written letters back and forth over the years. Both towns’ websites tell their side while also taking shots at the other. Two Rivers even issued a cease-and-desist order to Ithaca regarding their sundae story.

Residents, meanwhile, are quick to sound off about their respective first-ness.

“Everybody knows Two Rivers invented it,” one resident told The New York Times back in 2006. “That’s why we’re all so fat here. We eat a lot of them.”

A few years ago, Ithaca’s mayor received more than 100 postcards from Two Rivers’ residents, including one from “The Ghost of Ed Berners.” Two Rivers also sent a DVD of citizens singing a sundae “fight song.” In response, Ithaca came up with its own song called "Sundae Love," a barbershop-style ballad set to the tune of "Moon River."

Two Rivers, always in denial
The story you compile won’t play.
Your sign maker, a truth faker
Without sundae proof, your claims melted away.

While Ithaca and Two Rivers continue to duke it out for sundae supremacy, a third town quietly makes its case. In 1890, the town of Evanston, Illinois passed a ban prohibiting ice cream sodas on Sunday. This “blue law” came about through the influence of the Methodist church, which wasn’t pleased with the crowds the local soda fountains drew on the Sabbath. The soda fountains and drug stores, in response, came up with a clever workaround: the “Sunday soda.” As Richard Lloyd Jones, a former newspaper editor who grew up in Evanston at the time, wrote:

“Some ingenious confectioners and drug store operators in ‘Heavenston,’ obeying the law, served ice cream with the syrup of your choice without the soda. Thereby complying with the law. They did not serve ice cream sodas. They served sodas without soda on Sunday. This sodaless soda was the Sunday soda.”

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Born out of necessity, the Sunday soda nevertheless underwent a name change so as not to further offend the church. Evanston’s ice cream sundae became a local hit and quickly spread across the country. Or so Evanstonians say. Ithaca, Jones writes, likely got the idea from a Northwestern student returning home to upstate New York, or from a Cornell student from Evanston.

The other origin stories from around the country are as colorful as they are numerous. They include a druggist named Sonntag (Swedish for “Sunday”), a broken soda machine, a pastor with a sweet tooth, and a demanding little girl with a craving for chocolate syrup.

According to Anne Cooper Funderburg, author of Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains, the name “sundae” almost certainly developed as a way to avoid offending the church. Beyond that, though, it’s difficult to say anything with certainty about the ice cream sundae’s origins. Part of the difficulty is in sorting through the various accounts. There’s also the question of what really makes a sundae? Is it the combination of ice cream, chocolate, and cherry? Or should there be chopped nuts, as well? And what about whipped cream?

Luckily, a definitive answer isn’t required to enjoy one.

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Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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